UNPOPULAR OPINION: I Support Flag Burning

We don't get to pick and choose the free speech (which includes acts as well as speech) we approve of. The whole point of free speech is that it is free and open to anyone.
Publish date:
January 6, 2014
unpopular opinion, politics, flag burning, free speech, this is an issue?

So I've been rewatching "The West Wing," as one does periodically, and there's a great episode in season one where a politician tries to make a big issue out of flag burning and everyone's basically like "...uh, okay, whatever, dude." And then, since life so often seems to coincide with what I'm watching on television, I've been spotting flag burning coming up in surprising places.

I'm kind of astonished that burning the flag is an issue to begin with, let alone that it's such a heated issue, let alone that it leads to statements like this:

Like, seriously? One, this is even a question? Two, there are people who genuinely believe that flag burning is more offensive than book burning?

As always when I'm approaching a social issue where I feel like my response is not at all in alignment with people on the conservative side, I've explored the flag burning issue. To my understanding, some people are opposed to burning the US flag because they believe it is disrespectful, to both the flag and the nation as a whole. Some of those people point to images of people in other countries burning or marking up our flag in the streets in celebration when terrible things happen to us as a sign of how disrespectful it is.

The argument is that the flag is a sacred object in the United States, one laden with symbolic, political, and social meaning, and that burning the flag is a rather profound, and apparently profane, act.

I actually agree: burning a flag is a profound act, which is precisely why I support the right of people to do it. It's an act of basic free speech, a right we are all entitled to: I can burn a flag if I want to, and you can criticize me for burning a flag if you want to. Neither of us should be banned from doing so, because that undermines a key core of values held dear in this country.

We don't get to pick and choose the free speech (which includes acts as well as speech) we approve of. The whole point of free speech is that it is free and open to anyone. I don't always agree with the things other people say and do, but I still support their rights to say and do them -- just as I support and retain my right to criticize them for doing so.

Moreover, though, this attitude that burning the flag is disrespectful and offensive betrays a profound lack of understanding about the US Flag Code, which is, literally, the book on how to treat the flag. Section Eight notes that "No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America," and it proceeds to spell out what's disrespectful, and what's not.

Pop quiz: which of the following depicts disrespect to the US flag?

If you answered "B," you may have a cookie.

The first image depicts a flag retirement ceremony, in which flags are being respectfully disposed of in accordance with the Flag Code. Don't believe me? "The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning."

The second image shows a tattered flag being flown. This is disrespectful. Flags that are worn, faded, and tattered are to be respectfully disposed of, or, if they have important sentimental and cultural value (such as historic flags), they are to be mounted behind glass and preserved. When I see a tattered, worn-out flag on display, or a flag flying at night with no illumination, I get a clench in my heart, because that's disrespectful -- and I see anti-flag burning people doing both of these things on a regular basis.

I see people who are opposed to flag burning wearing the flag as apparel, not allowing the flag to hang free, using the flag as drapery, adding the flag to disposable items, not using all-weather flags for outdoor displays, and engaging in other activities that are clearly deemed disrespectful under the Flag Code. I view these things as disrespectful to the flag itself as a symbolic item, and to the United States.

As do people like, say, veterans, many of whom are offended by such displays and some of whom are angered by heated opposition to flag burning coming from people who are busy disrespecting the flag right and left.

These flags are waiting for respectful disposal in a flag retirement ceremony, where they'll be burned. (In this particular instance, by members of the American Legion.) Unlike the tattered flag above, they're being given an honest and respectful retirement, rather than continuing to be flown in a manner that insults the United States.

I don't see people opposed to burning the flag campaigning to enforce the Flag Code, or even working to retire and replace worn, tattered, and soiled flags in their communities (which I have done, for the record). It's actually very easy to replace an old flag; most hardware stores carry them at pretty low price points, and sometimes you can get them for free, especially if you're at a public agency or it's around the time of a patriotic holiday. In fact, you can even get a flag that was flown over the Capitol through your Congressperson!

And it's very easy to retire an old flag: you can respectfully burn it, or you can bring it to a community organization, like the Boy Scouts above, who will burn it in a retirement ceremony.

By the way? I view actual disrespect to the flag as free speech as well -- flying a tattered flag as a statement or commentary is a valid form of political expression.

Flying such a flag because you're too lazy to replace it while screaming about how flag burning should be banned, on the other hand, is just ridiculous.